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Bell officials reject deals from D.A.; critics say two years isn’t enough

February 7, 2011 |  5:08 pm

Lawyers for six current and former Bell leaders said their clients have rejected plea deals that would have brought them two-year prison terms in exchange for admitting guilt and paying back all the money they allegedly looted from the city treasury.

The news emerged Monday as the six defendants -- council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, and former council members Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello -– faced the first day of a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the Bell corruption case.

Cristina Garcia, a spokeswoman for BASTA, a citizens' group that has called for the council members to resign, said she will head to the courtroom if a plea deal for two years in prison is negotiated.

"I think the community would not just be a little disappointed but outraged if that occurs," Garcia said. "The reality is the city is near bankruptcy. So many people in this community have been abused by these people and two years isn't enough. The people of Bell are going to be paying for generations for what they have done."

Dmitry Gorin, a defense attorney and former deputy district attorney, said the plea offer is a sign that prosecutors are escalating pressure.

Prosecutors, he said, may also be trying to gain their cooperation in hooking the bigger fish in this case -– former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who is charged with 50 felony counts of misappropriating public funds and corruption. Gorin said the apparent lack of a plea offer to Rizzo and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia reflects that they are the true targets of the trials.

"It is a very high-profile case and in such cases they often start with high offers," Gorin said. "They are trying to make an example of these elected officials and they want to send them that message."

Based on his experience, he said, two years in state prison is not a good deal and defense lawyers are likely to want to keep going with the case until a better offer is made.

"The case against the council members is going to be lot tougher to make than against a professional like Rizzo," Gorin said. "The council members are not involved in the day-to-day running of City Hall and rely on the staff for advice. What they have done may be reprehensible but their lawyers will argue it was not illegal. They, after all, are elected council members not professionals." Gorin said the prosecutors have to show they knew they were doing something wrong.

"Rizzo by contrast had his fingers in every cake," Gorin said. "The case against him is far stronger."

-- Richard Winton